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05 October 2010

Prison service failing to address needs of hazardous drinkers

A thematic review published by the HM Inspectorate of Prisons highlights the failure of the Prison Service adequately to address the needs and behaviour of prisoners who have severe alcohol dependency, despite repeated warnings by the Prison Reform Trust about its harmful effect on reoffending rates and the growing prevalence of alcohol-related crime.

The review, drawing on inspection surveys of 13,000 prisoners, 72 inspection reports and surveys of drug coordinators in 68 prisons, revealed that in 2008-09, 19% of prisoners reported having an alcohol problem when they entered the prison, rising to 30% for young adults and 29% for women.

This is likely to be an underestimate, as many will not recognise they have a problem. Research published by the Prison Reform Trust reveals that nearly two thirds of sentenced prisoners and two fifths of female sentenced prisoners admit to hazardous drinking which carries the risk of physical or mental harm. Of these, about half have a severe alcohol dependency.

Alcohol misuse also has a significant impact on rates of reoffending outside prison and is a contributory factor to levels of violent crime. Research by the Home Office published in 2006 shows that in almost half of violent crime (48%) the victim believed the offender or offenders to be under the influence of alcohol.

In 2004 the Prison Reform Trust published a briefing, Alcohol and Reoffending: Who Cares? highlighting the dangers of failing to address the problem and called for the creation of a properly resourced alcohol strategy by the Prison Service, supported by the NHS. Despite this the inspectorate report reveals that the Prison Service has failed to recognise the prevalence of alcohol misuse and is not properly resourced to deal with its effect. Among the key findings of the report are:

  • Most alcohol users reported concurrent use of illegal drugs, but a significant proportion of men (including half those in local prisons) reported having only an alcohol problem.
  • On entry to prison, alcohol problems are not consistently or reliably identified, nor is the severity of alcohol withdrawal symptoms.
  • Few prisons had an alcohol strategy based on a current needs analysis, and even where analyses had been carried out, some underestimated that need.
  • Services for alcohol users were very limited, particularly for those who did not also use illicit drugs.
  • There were few specific interventions available to treat alcohol users; the lack of specific funding was a major barrier to providing adequate services, whereas there has been ring-fenced funding for illicit drug users.
  • There were few community services to provide support for alcohol users on release.

Commenting on the findings of the review Juliet Lyon, director of the Prison Reform Trust, said:

“Alcohol-related crime and binge-drinking costs billions of pounds a year, fuelling violent crime and anti-social behaviour. At a fraction of this cost alcohol treatment, as proposed by specialists such as Alcohol Concern, could be developed in the community and in custody. What is needed is a national strategy, backed up by sufficient resources and led by the NHS, to tackle the growing problem of alcohol and provide joined up training and support in prisons. Everyone knows that breaking addictions cuts crime.”